On the 10th July, Ashley Good, Head of Failure and Learning at Engineers without Borders (EWB), led a 90-minute workshop to explore how failures can be used as a tool for learning, rather than hide them away out of fear and shame.
EWB was founded in Canada by engineers who wanted to provide solutions to real problems, i.e., alleviating poverty opposed to increasing the efficiency of photocopying machines. EWB is committed to ensuring that the projects they implement work – and part and parcel of that is to make sure they do not repeat the same mistakes. So along with their Annual Report, they publish a report called the “Failure Report”. EWB does not consider this merely an internal learning document, but also as a tool for changing the entire international development sector.
What does “Failing Forward” mean? Look at the Admitting Failure site that was founded by Ashley Good, and you will find failing forward defined as:
1. Operating in a safe environment for testing risky innovative ideas
2. Recognizing failures early
3. Admitting failures openly and honestly
4. Learning from these failures
5. Adapting actions based on the learning in order to improve upon risky innovative ideas
The workshop was interesting, and it made me reflect on a few things related to the notion of failure. Firstly, we discussed how there are both blameworthy and praiseworthy failures (although perhaps it all depends on your perception). There is a spectrum of causes of failure – ranging from exploratory testing, uncertainty, task challenge, inability, process inadequacy, inattention to deviance – some causes have very positive and others very negative connotations. When we were asked to share our failures in smaller groups, I found that actually failures are mostly shared. However, the hot potato blame game is often performed: “it’s not my fault, the environment wasn’t enabling.” In complex projects, it is usually several concurrent things that cause the failure, and not only one thing. If failure is a state – a snapshot of a negative moment in time – to fail forward implies a process: for internalizing and admitting the failure, and then creatively and constructively identify the lessons learnt and ways to ensure that in the future that failure is less likely to materialize. I think that whether a person fails or not does not depend on the outcome, which is often beyond her control, rather on whether the person did her best (i.e., on her own input). Once bona fide is ascertained, then admitting failure should be easy.
What stops us from sharing our failures? Several things, depending on the context, and ranging from lack of trust, difficulty in expressing feelings, reputational risk, fear of damaging your organization’s reputation, implications on others and on your work environment and so on. So you need a specific organizational culture to promote failing forward. Creating a safe space means looking at the individual, interpersonal and institutional levels of the organization.